Writing the introduction

In university writing you will be expected to provide some kind of introduction to your assignment. It may seem strange to tackle the introduction at such a late stage. The reason for including it here is that in practice you can only finalize the introduction once you have written the whole assignment and, except for a final review, have got it into a shape that you find acceptable. This will be obvious if you accept that you may not know what you think until you have written it down. It is only when you have completed a piece of writing that you can introduce it to the reader.

This said, however, some writers find that writing the introduction first gives them a sense of assurance about where they are going. It can help them to feel grounded with a good sense of direction - it serves as a map. However, if you decide to use the introduction in this way you definitely need to return to it to check if it still really works in this way, because one of the points of the introduction is that it is written particularly with the reader in mind. It is also necessary to check that you introduce what you have actually written rather than what you thought you were writing. So our advice is that if you do feel the need for the security of writing your introduction first to get you going, do this quite quickly. Don't spend a long time getting it right' - because it may turn out not to be right after all when you have finished the whole assignment. It is only too easy for students to get bogged down in trying to write the introduction and to spend too much time struggling with a task that would be much easier if it were left until later.

Advice on university writing always stresses the importance of the introduction, and sometimes the introduction is prescribed quite specifically. For example, the following is a common formula:

• Introduction: Tell the reader what you are going to do in the essay.

• Main body: Present your argument.

• Conclusion: Say how you have done what you promised in the introduction and bring everything together.

However, as we illustrated in Chapter 3, this formula only applies in some cases. In practice, there are many different ways of introducing and concluding a piece of work, depending on the subject, the task and the length of your assignment. On the whole, the longer the work, the longer the introduction.

You will probably find that you get different kinds of advice about the introduction from tutors in different subject areas. As always, you will need to find out what these are. For example, one tutor may say that you should announce what you are going to say in an essay with a good clear introduction', while a tutor in another subject says that this would be redundant and rather boring information: I don't need to be told what you are going to say; I'll find out soon enough'. Therefore, although the reader does need to know where the essay will take them, the exact form of the introduction will vary according to the particular conventions of the subject as well as any particular requirements of an individual assignment.

Although it is difficult to lay down rules as to what exactly the introduction should look like, you will be able to work out what is needed in your own way if you bear in mind that the major function of an introduction is to provide the reader with a clear signpost to where the whole piece is going. Then you will realize that there are different ways of doing this, and that the introduction, of course, depends on the piece of writing it introduces.

What the introduction may do

• Give an overview of what the piece will be about.

• Present the central idea of the assignment.

• Give reasons for writing this piece.

• Explain how the title will be interpreted.

• Give reasons for answering a question in a particular way.

• Introduce the questions the essay will be addressing.

• Give the background to the main topic of the essay; the history and/or the context.

• Make a bold statement that the rest of the essay will fill out and justify.

• Quote from somewhere else in order to interest the reader and give a feel for what the whole essay is about.

• Present a concrete example or story which the piece will explain or elaborate upon.

• Relate the assignment to other work in the same field.

• Convey the writer's own relationship both to the material of the assignment and to the reader, and a sense of their own voice in the assignment.

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